Wolves 2 Birmingham 3
One day, when he's long retired, someone might be brave enough to ask Mick McCarthy what it felt like to be the losing manager in one of the best games of football you're ever likely to see. Yesterday afternoon really was not the occasion.
McCarthy was mad with rage at referee Graham Laws' match-turning decision not to award Wolves a penalty when dashing winger Michael Kightly was felled by Birmingham City defender Bruno N'Gotty in the box.
The only pleasure he had to console him was that his Wolverhampton Wanderers side had given a performance more than good enough to have beaten Blues and taken a large step nearer the Championship play-offs.
Had they been given the penalty, at 2-1 up with just 15 minutes to go, Wolves almost certainly would have done.
Yet Mr Laws looked the other way and little more than 60 seconds later, Blues equalised through Nicklas Bendtner's bullet header.
There was worse to follow for Wolves when Cameron Jerome broke away to hit the late winner that put Blues with one foot back in the Premiership.
Even then, there was still drama when Mr Laws spotted Wolves skipper Jody Craddock go to ground in the box having tangled with the clumsy N'Gotty and, this time, the referee did award a penalty.
But, despite an outstanding spot-kick record, Michael McIndoe fluffed his lines, he was out-psyched by Blues goalkeeper Colin Doyle — and that brought down the final curtain on a breath-taking two hours.
It left Blues back on top for the seventh time this season, knowing that this time next week they could be back in the Premiership.
They may even yet win the title and still nobody quite knows how they do it, when they keep being outplayed. But there they are, thanks to their habit of keeping their cool and scoring goals when it matters.
Although this is Blues we're talking about and they're not exactly renowned for keeping things simple, it's hard to imagine that St Andrew's this Saturday is not going to be a great place to be.
Wolves, by contrast, are still bound for the play-offs, but only assuming they keep their heads a little better than they managed yesterday.
Amidst all the hullabaloo surrounding the penalty controversy, poor defending was to blame for all Blues' three goals and, although there were times when Doyle stood between his team and a heavy defeat before the break, Steve Bruce's men were still a threat.
Everything came down to that one incident, though and, despite sharing the opinion of many with his assessment of all referees as "smug and arrogant", McCarthy refuted the idea that he had been in for a post-match chat with Mr Laws.
"I've not been in to see one of them for years," insisted McCarthy. "Over the season, I don't think I've even so much commented on a referee's performance. I write my reports on a Monday morning and that's it. But, at 2-1, we have an absolute stonewall penalty. I've not spoken to anyone who thinks otherwise.
"Macca taking the penalty at 2-1 to go 3-1 up with a quarter-of-an-hour left is a hugely different experience to taking it at 3-2 for the equaliser with time running out. We might have missed the thing, but at least we'd have liked the opportunity."
With right back Mark Little suspended, McCarthy had to make one change, opting for Neill Collins, leaving Jackie McNamara at left-back. But he also had a fit-again Matt Murray at his disposal and he came in, as expected, for Jan Budtz.
Bruce, by contrast, had no selection decisions. With skipper Damien Johnson still sidelined due to a hamstring problem, the Blues boss had little doubts about opting for the same team that held on for a 2-1 win against Leicester City on Tuesday. Doyle was kept busier here in the first half, making four important saves — three of them brave close-range blocks.
Both sides had good early penalty claims, Wolves' for Fabrice Muamba's challenge on Seyi Olofinjana, Blues' for Collins' clumsy lunge at Gary McSheffrey. But, although Andy Keogh and Michael Kightly were both on top form, it was not until just before the half-hour that the game truly erupted into overdrive. For one crazy five-minute spell, triggered by chaos in the Wolves box when skipper Stephen Clemence hit the woodwork and McSheffrey poked the rebound wide, it was like a prize fight as the two sides traded blow after blow at either end.
Bothroyd fired a left-foot volley over the bar, Keogh struck his point-blank header straight at Doyle, Andy Cole's sharp turn was denied by a smart Murray save, McIndoe's long range effort was parried by Doyle and Keogh almost sneaked the rebound through his legs.
Murray then made another scrambling save to deny Cole, Bothroyd had a right-foot shot beaten away and Murray had to save again from McSheffrey.
Finally, the pressure told eight minutes into the second half when Cole latched on to Bendtner's flick-on to clip home. But, after Collins's low cross had gone untouched and Bothroyd headed wide, Wolves were level when Kightly crossed and McIndoe's header went in off the post.
Five minutes later, McIndoe repeated the dose from Keogh's cross and then N'Gotty sent Kightly flying.
Within two minutes, from McSheffrey's corner, Bendtner stole in at the near post to head home and Jerome then kept his cool to fire under Murray for 3-2 before the final moment when McIndoe finally got the chance from the spot and missed.
Even in defeat, though, came another McCarthy gem. "I reckon we must be saving all these penalties up for the play-off final," he quipped, tongue in cheek.
"It's all set up to be a penalty shoot-out victory for super Wolves."
Scorers: Cole (53) 0-1; McIndoe (66) 1-1; McIndoe (71) 2-1; Bendtner (76) 2-2; Jerome (87) 2-3.
WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS (4-4-2): Murray; Collins, Craddock, Breen (Clapham, 60), McNamara; Kightly, Olofinjana, Potter, McIndoe; Bothroyd (Ward, 86), Keogh. Subs: Budtz (gk), M Davies, Ward, Gleeson.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Doyle; N'Gotty, Jaidi, Taylor, Kelly; Larsson (Nafti, 88), Clemence, Muamba, McSheffrey; Cole (Jerome, 60), Bendtner. Subs: Maik Taylor (gk), Campbell, Vine.
Referee: Graham Laws (Whitley Bay)
Bookings: Wolves — Breen, Olofinjana (fouls), Collins (dissent), Bothroyd (ungentlemanly conduct); Birmingham — Clemence, Jaidi, McSheffrey (fouls), Muamba (dissent).